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Number of migrants in Denver’s shelters dips below 1,000 for first time in 6 months

The number of migrants staying in Denver shelters dipped below 1,000 for the first time in six months this week, leading city officials to consolidate hotel shelters amid a period of respite.

Sarah Plastino, Denver’s recently hired newcomer program manager, called the dip in numbers a “turning point for the city” during a lull in seasonal migration patterns, which could ramp up in the spring. On Thursday afternoon, 941 migrants were staying in city shelters, according to city data.

“Two months ago, that looked really different — we’re at our high and we were in the throes of an emergency response,” she told reporters Wednesday. “And right now, we are shifting to our long-term programmatic model response. We’re trying to be deliberate. We’re trying to be proactive and put systems in place to ensure we’re not caught off guard if we receive large numbers of people again.”

Of 10 city shelters, three have shut down and a fourth is expected to close this month, according to Jon Ewing, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Human Services. The remaining shelters include the Mullen Home for families with children, three hotel sites and two congregate sites, one of which is on standby. The city began releasing thousands of migrants from shelters last month as they hit reinstated shelter limits, but the number of arrivals also has decreased.

The number of migrants arriving in Denver over the past week was 245 compared to upwards of 1,000 people a week during surges. And the number of people staying in Denver’s migrant shelters peaked at 4,701 on Jan. 11, Ewing said.

Plastino said the long-term response efforts include an increase in case management and collaboration with partners, but she wouldn’t elaborate on details of the plans or whether Denver planned to resume its efforts to hire additional contractors to run shelter operations and services. That information is expected in the coming weeks, she added, and the goal is to make spending more sustainable.

The mayor’s office asked city departments earlier this year to cut 10% to 15% of their budgets to meet a $180 million deficit to offset migrant response costs, which he later reduced to about $120 million after the number of new arrivals slowed.

Despite the numbers going down, the city hasn’t yet revised those projections. Plastino said city staff is in the process of finalizing a budget request that will go to the City Council for approval in April. As of Monday, the city had spent about $61 million on migrant sheltering and services since the first bus arrived in December 2022.

As of Thursday, the city had provided shelter and services to 39,740 people. The highest percentage of cost is for the shelter space at 36%, followed by personnel costs at 33%, Ewing said.

In recent weeks, the city has focused much of its efforts on workforce authorization clinics to help asylum seekers apply for work permits — an often lengthy and complex process as migrants await adjudication of their cases. The city has helped 1,400 people receive work permits.

But even if migrants get that work authorization, only 28% of Venezuelan asylum cases were approved in fiscal year 2023, leading to long-term challenges for those who immigrated and want to work in their new country — and the city that wants to help them stay.

It’s a crisis that will unfold over decades and requires federal action, Plastino said. Denver leaders have been calling for comprehensive immigration reform and an an extension of Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans, giving them protections and quicker work authorization as they await final immigration decisions.

On Thursday afternoon, Mayor Mike Johnston and senior White House adviser Tom Perez participated in a roundtable discussion with migrants at the Mullen Home, the property the city has leased from the Archdiocese of Denver to temporarily house migrant families.

Several migrants shared the stories of their journeys from Venezuela to Denver, their previous jobs and the kind of work they picked up to make money as they awaited work authorization. But those without work permits face significantly more challenges in supporting themselves and their families.

When Ronaldo Delgado, a welder by trade, received his work permit, he said in Spanish that his work became more stable and he was guaranteed pay for the work he did — something that wasn’t always the case before.

Plastino said Wednesday that she hopes a shift will occur in how people view migrants fleeing Venezuela.

“A quarter of the population of Venezuela has left since 2017. This is a refugee (crisis),” she said. “When people say they want to work, it’s because they want to be self-sustainable. People left Venezuela because their government created a life-threatening crisis where they are not able to access the basics of life.”

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